The Twelfth Man

I had settled in to watch the Green-Bay-Philly game, but at an ad I flipped to TCM and found that The Third Man was playing. Even though I’ve seen it a dozen times, several times on the big screen (including a memorable time when Helen and I emerged from the tube in the rain in Notting Hill and ran into a movie theater, which just happened to be playing The Third Man, a scene that seems out of The Third Man), and even though I was psyched about the football game, I found myself sucked into one of those few movies where I enjoy every single moment. One of the things that really makes the movie for me is the famous zither soundtrack.

I’ve always heard that Anton Karas, the composer of this “Harry Lime Theme,” was simply playing his zither in some beer garden, and Carol Reed, the director, came across him and made him compose the music. The music became so famous that Anton Karas’s life was changed and people began complaining about the ubiquity of the tune. The zither seems like one of those impossible instruments to play.

I love movie music that doesn’t simply spice up the drama, music that adds a whole new dimension to what happens. The zither music in The Third Man acts as a kind of wise old chorus that says to the great drama on the screen, “Oh well, life does go on, doesn’t it?, humankind isn’t so horrible or great as it’s cracked up to be, we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. Harry is right to grin at life, but he’s too wicked. Holly is wrong to get so morose all the time, even if he’s in the right.” The tune seems to say this out of a long experience of tragedy. It has the simplicity and catchiness of a folk tune, but somehow a bit of urbanity and world-weariness too.

Many find the last scene – a perfect one by all accounts – melancholy. I guess I see it as Holly finally accepting whatever wisdom the musical theme seems to possess. “Haven’t got a sensible name, Callaway.”

And she just keeps walking.

PS: I understand that the expression “the twelfth man,” which usually refers to how crowd noise can transform a football game, was born when Texas A&M had many injuries in the first half and actually called an old football player out of the crowd to step in to the game.

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